The secret behind Benicio del Toro, Natalie Portman, Steve Buscemi and half of Hollywood

Benicio del Toro, in one of his first auditions, in the documentary ‘Bonnie’.

He had not printed the necessary documents. Instead, she showed a piece of handwritten paper. He didn’t have large photographs of himself either: he handed over tiny ones, as if he were going to get his identity card. Two requests, two failures. The boy’s audition, of course, did not start well. But Bonnie Timmermann always knew how to see beyond. Perhaps that kid with pitch-black hair and intense eyes was not the most organized interviewee she could remember. However, she had something special. “Star quality”, recalls the legendary casting director on camera. She was right, once again. In proposing his signing for the series Corruption in Miami. And in that the young man was waiting for a position among the stars. Today Benicio del Toro already occupies it. And apart from his talent, he also owes it to Timmermann’s intuition. Just like many others. How do you say the documentary Bonny, screened at the recent Venice festival and looking for distribution in Spain: “Any actor whose name can be remembered has gone through it”.

“I’m always attracted to people who have a certain mystery. I like an invitation to imagine all kinds of improbabilities. I also think it’s important for a performer to take the time to place the emotion of the moment within a greater understanding of the character,” Timmermann explains via email about what he’s looking for in auditions for him. It is clear that he has been finding it for decades. Like it shows, for this Simon Wallon film some of the most famous faces in Hollywood parade: Sigourney Weaver, Mark Ruffalo, Liam Neeson, Melissa Leo, Lawrence Fishburne, Bruce Willis, Kate Winslet or Natalie Portman. Many contribute their thanks and their brushstrokes to complete the portrait of one of the most important talent detectors in the seventh art. And to draw a tribute to a decisive but almost invisible professional figure: hidden behind the director and actors, although she is precisely in charge of bringing them together. Incidentally, the film recovers the first castings of so many celebrities. Before fame, before consecration, when they were like everyone else: insecure strangers on the hunt for an opportunity.

Timmermann gave it to him “Sometimes even the best actor needs help auditioning. At first I spend 20 minutes talking to them”, he defends in the documentary. Steve Buscemi, for example, tells in the film that he was constantly rejected for “too shy”. Until he crossed paths with Timmermann. And Giancarlo Esposito is even moved by remembering the woman who launched his career. He also intuited the magic of Brian Cox just by seeing him perform from behind, in a theater. He insisted on proposing Russell Crowe for The dilemma, by Michael Mann, one of his first leading roles, after seeing him smoking in a hotel bar. And she’s still proud to have pushed for Jennifer Gray to play Baby in Dirty Dancing. She sums up the characteristics of a good director of casting: “Intuition and openness, which allows you to see past an embarrassing audition or realize that an actor who plays a very convincing villain can also star in a romantic comedy.”

In the film, her wards describe her in more poetic ways. “It’s the gap between everything and nothing,” says Ruffalo. “It adds a dimension to the project that the writer didn’t even imagine,” adds del Toro. And that at first not even Timmermann herself understood very well what she was going to dedicate herself to. “My first job was for an independent New York stage company. When I accepted, I didn’t know what did a director of casting. But I immediately fell in love with the performers and the theater. So many people contribute to what is later seen on the movie and television screens, and it is time for my profession to get the recognition it deserves,” he explains. And he cites other myths of her craft, from Marion Dougherty to Lynn Stalmaster, from Mary Colquhoun to Shirley Rich.

Bonnie Timmermann, in a still from the documentary.
Bonnie Timmermann, in a still from the documentary.

The documentary recognizes even more merits. “He believes very strongly in the actors he casts,” says director Michael Mann. “He’s not the kind of person who says yes to everything,” describes filmmaker Derek Cianfrance. She recognizes a certain warrior spirit: “I insist until they agree with me or I give up.” She spent weeks interviewing the inhabitants of various reserves in Canada and the United States because she was determined that The last Mohican It would have real indigenous people. He repeated the process with natives of the Amazon to The last days of Eden. And, in the face of general skepticism, he managed to get the musician Leonard Cohen to appear in Corruption in Miami. Persuasion, yes, had a trick: “He was my ex-boyfriend, of course I got it.” Although, for so many years, Timmermann She also remembers some defeat: not even her insistence convinced, towards the end of the nineties, the producers of a film to sign a boy who had fascinated her. His name was Edward Norton.

Another male. Like a good part of Timmermann’s elect. The documentary itself underlines this. She replies, “I’m sure I’ve proposed more men than women. But that’s because most of the roles are written for them.” And she points out that one of her first productions, the play Uncommon Women and Others, by Wendy Wasserstein, in 1977, featured Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, among others. In any case, in the film Sigourney Weaver points out the casting director’s great ability to “deal with high-testosterone atmospheres.” She, to explain it, goes back to her father: “He was an immigrant, an amateur boxer and a demanding parent. I suspect that growing up in that house prepared me to work with directors like Mann or Ridley Scott. Although I must say that the auditions for awakenings, of Penny Marshall, whom I respect very much, were not a walk.

Kate Winslet, in one of her first 'castings', in a frame from the documentary.
Kate Winslet, in one of her first ‘castings’, in a frame from the documentary.

At the same time, his drive towards the inclusion of minorities in his projects has always been recognized. Decades ago, they said that Timmermann did “castings obliques, or voodoo,” according to the documentary. Today they would simply define themselves as righteous. In Blackhat: Threat in the network, by Mann, had to look for a white Italian-American man for one of the main roles: he proposed Viola Davis, a woman and black. And, finally, she took the cat to the water. As almost always.

The director considers that the Me Too movement has not changed her work much. She swears that she has never heard of or suspected “any inappropriate behavior in the movies” she has worked on. And that the stories about the so-called casting couch —a young actress in search of a role is exposed to harassment or abuse of power by the director who must decide whether to cast her— have been heard since the very beginning of Hollywood. What he does see differently is the way he searches for hidden gems: “When I started, I was able to keep up with all the new emerging talent by going to the theater several times a week and seeing the main movies and series. There is so much content today that it is impossible to see all the good performances. Newspaper reviews and word of mouth have become much more important.” Although the main thing is still instinct. And Timmermann’s rarely fails. Half of Hollywood still thanks him.

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The secret behind Benicio del Toro, Natalie Portman, Steve Buscemi and half of Hollywood